Sundance 2019: Birds of Passage

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, producer and director, respectively of 2015’s fantastic Embrace of the Serpent, team up to direct this quiet epic set in the Guajira region of Colombia, home to an indigenous people known as the Wayúu. As with their previous film, Gallego and Guerra preside over a disastrous clash of cultures, here between a desert-dwelling matriarchal society and an increasingly violent drug economy vaguely tying the Wayúus’ lives to American appetites.

The initial violation comes as a result of Rapayet, the film’s primary male protagonist’s need to come up with a steep dowry to earn the hand of Zaida, daughter of a fiercely protective mother, Ursula. Rapayet is Wayúu, but he’s used to doing business with outsiders, alijunas, which makes him both lax in his practice of folkways, and suspect to the dominant Ursula. Ursula’s substantial power in the community stems not just from her possession of a protective talisman, but also her rigor and her capacity to interpret dreams. Ursula knows and she knows how. Tribal traditions are mostly maintained through her vigilance and insistence. If belief is one foundational pillar of the tribe, the sanctity and primacy of the family is the other. In the moments before Zaida emerges from the ritual confinement that signals her arrival into adulthood, Ursula instructs her daughter that a Wayúu woman must be prepared to do anything to protect her family. Hence the seemingly impossible hurdle of Zaida’s dowry, her price as it were: 30 goats, 20 cows, and five necklaces. Despite the Wayúu’s valuing of the word and family reputation, it seems that property is nevertheless the real power in this particular neighborhood.

Rapayet, already involved in a minor smuggling operation with his alijuna friend Moises, sees an opportunity for advancement when the two are approached with a proposition to sell marijuana to some hippieish Peace Corps workers. As it happens, Rapayet’s mountain-dwelling cousin, Aníbal (also Wayúu, but from another clan), is growing the “wild grass” on a relatively humble scale. After some tense negotiations, Rapayet, Moises, and Aníbal strike a mutually profitable deal. This initial success not only gets Rapayet the dowry he needs, it leads to a burgeoning family business that brings everyone involved—in the desert and in the mountains—greater and greater measures of wealth and power.

As a mob film, the broad arc of the family’s rise and fall over the course of about 15 years (1968 to the early 1980s) is relatively predictable. What’s of maybe more interest is the development of the two clans’ enmity toward each other and the way the traditions that have bound them and their business practices are worn away by the accretion of their more or less distant connections with non-Wayúu culture. There are a number of subtle forms of erosion, as when Aníbal comes to rely on an alijuna bodyguard and begins to eschew his native Wayúu for Spanish, or when Rapayet’s son says he wants to learn to fly planes (like those that transport their drugs) rather than ride a horse. More troubling for Rapayet, Ursula, and their family, however, is that the seemingly natural magic intertwined with their tribe’s traditions, a magic tied visually to insects, birds, and the weather, gradually seems to lose its efficacy. With it goes respect for elders and all boundaries, until the family is left blind and afraid, cut loose from the perception of spiritual guidance, sunk in a chaos of personal choice.

Birds of Passage is beautifully shot and edited and features a remarkably strong ensemble cast with faces as memorable as their performances, a film well worth a watch.

See all our Sundance Coverage here.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

Similar Articles